Twitter is in crisis. Just as the value of its stock has dipped to an all-time low, it has picked a fight with conservative and libertarian users on its own platform. This marks a low point for a social media company that has spent the last year alienating its own users.
Twitter’s latest catastrophe was sparked by the unverification of Breitbart Tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos, for an alleged rule violation that the company refused to divulge. It sparked a massive backlash from Yiannopoulos’ devoted followers, some of whom have begun emailing Twitter’s investors and advertisers.
In addition to condemnation from conservative media, including The Blaze and Twitchy, it also drew the ire of independent observers such as tech entrepeneur Jason Calacanis and the influential advertising blog Adland. Even reports in outlets on the opposite end of the political spectrum to Yiannopoulos, like BuzzFeed, were not exactly pro-Twitter in their analysis.
The company now faces a sustained revolt from the most dedicated of its conservative and culturally libertarian users — and, most likely, more negative media coverage too. Its brand will be hurt: yet more unwelcome news for investors, who already have much to be concerned about.
The #JeSuisMilo revolt, however, was a long time coming. Anger at Twitter had been building amidst a large and vocal segment of the platform’s userbase for some time. Almost every change Twitter has made to its service over the past year has served to turn more users against it.
From filtering users’ timelines without their consent to the creation of unpopular new features like “moments,” an attempt to introduce top-down content curation to Twitter, and “while you were away,” an attempt to move away from Twitter’s old model of real-time news.
As Adland’s Åsk Wäppling explains: “Jack Dorsey has begun experimenting with a timeline view in which tweets are sorted by relevance – as determined by an algorithm which can only be as smart as the person who programmed it – rather than chronological time published.” There are no signs that either feature has been met with particular enthusiasm by users, who are accustomed to choosing the content they see on Twitter.
But it’s not just botched or stillborn new features that are proving cancerous to the reputation of Twitter. The past few years have seen the growth of a relentless, radical, destabilising force in tech that threatens the political neutrality of virtually every company in Silicon Valley: the culturally authoritarian social justice warrior.
And I do mean every company. There’s Jake Boxer of GitHub, who pressured the company into removing a GamerGate page in late 2014. Then there’s the increasingly notorious Arbitration Committee at Wikipedia, who recently purged a long-serving (but politically nonconformist) editor without any public evidence or appeals.
At Twitter, we have engineering manager Michael Margolis, who had been out to get Yiannopoulos for some time prior to his unverification.
Brazenly wearing their political bias on their sleeves, they can often be found in public conversation with progressive and feminist activists, doing everything they can to censor their opponents on the platforms and web services where they hold sway. Twitter, like other Silicon Valley companies, appears to be slow to realise the catastrophic effect that political bias has on user confidence.
Some of Twitter’s more long-standing policies are also a source of annoyance to users. Its policy of refusing to comment on individual user bans, for example, is baffling. So too is its lack of an appeals process. In the case of Yiannopoulos, the failure to provide a reason for his punishment added to the perception that Twitter is entirely arbitrary in its punishments.
This will not be helped by the introduction of new policies, no doubt at the behest of the progressive culture warriors mentioned above, that give Twitter a free hand to suspend anyone, at any time, without providing a reason. A new rule against abusive behaviour lists a number of prohibited actions on Twitter, including violent threats, harassment, and encouraging self-harm. Crucially, however, the rule is prefaced by the following line:
“Including, but not limited to.” In other words, Twitter has given itself the ability to make arbitrary, on-the-spot decisions about what constitutes harassment. Inexplicable suspensions of conservative celebrities like Adam Baldwin suddenly make more sense. The fingerprints of social justice warriors, who delight in redefining political disagreement as “harassment,” are all over this new rule. Twitter’s reputation for arbitrary, politically-motivated punishment looks set to grow.
In addition to taking sides in the culture wars, Twitter is also no longer a friend to the politically downtrodden around the world. The platform that once prided itself on acting as a means for activists to challenge their states, increasingly takes their marching orders from national governments.
Twitter, along with Facebook, is working with Germany to enforce its stringent hate speech laws across its platform, assisting Chancellor Angela Merkel in her dangerous attempt to suppress pent-up anger at recent atrocities committed by migrants.
It isn’t just western regimes either: the same Twitter that once acted as a conduit for the Arab Spring now regularly caves in to censorship requests from Turkey. Any reputation Twitter had as a friend to the oppressed is quickly evaporating. Like so many other flashy tech companies, Twitter has morphed seamlessly from a bastion of Silicon Valley, change-the-world idealism, to an opaque, compromised corporate entity like any other.
#JeSuisMilo is not just a momentary instance of outrage. The hashtag, still active after two days, is the culmination of Twitter’s catastrophic management of its relationship with users. Over a year of simmering user discontent has erupted into an online firestorm that is unlikely to die down anytime soon.
For a company that’s already struggling to grow its user base, and with younger competitors like Snapchat and Vine providing more enticing options for those looking to reach an audience, this could mark the beginning of the end for Twitter.